Project 1.1

Local and global public good contributions of higher education: a comparative study in six national systems

Doctoral research project

Similarities and differences between notions of ‘public’ in the Sinic and Anglo-American traditions, and the implications for higher education

The doctoral research project is a sub-project of the main inquiry and is being undertaken by Lili Yang.

Project aim

The project will identify and explore the similarities and differences between Anglo-American and Chinese (Sinic) civilizational traditions, in understandings and practices of ‘public’ and ‘social’ in higher education.


The Sinic tradition understands the state in comprehensive terms, supreme in relation to markets and civil society. Sinic assumptions continue to shape political cultures, society and higher education practices across East Asia and Singapore, though higher education systems in East Asia have also been strongly affected by the encounter with Western modernisation.

By contrast, the Anglo-American tradition understands the state as being limited. This follows from the tradition of John Locke and Adam Smith. The Anglo-American model is currently the leading international influence on worldwide higher education. Its influence is strengthened by the normative effects of global university rankings.

In the Anglo-American world the independence of the university from state direction is integral to its capacity to create public goods, but the locus of definition of ‘public’ is accordingly unclear. If ‘public’ does not mean the state, where does it lie?

In the Sinic world, the autonomous personality of the university is mostly expressed on behalf of the state – universities are not separated form the state – and in relation to the core responsibilities of the state for prosperity and social order.

Academic freedom is understood in terms of authority and responsibility, perhaps more than in terms of negative freedom (the dominant notion of academic freedom in the limited liberal state tradition), though freedom of teaching and research from coercion by external authority is valued in all higher education traditions.

In a monograph of case studies on contemporary Chinese universities, Ruth Hayhoe (2011) notes the presence of ‘a strong tradition of “intellectual freedom” in China’, with foundations distinct from those of European rationalism. This Chinese tradition requires that knowledge be demonstrated first and foremost through action for the ‘public good’, and that knowledge is ‘holistic and inter-connected’, not organised in ‘narrowly defined separate disciplines’.

It must be said that neither tradition is always true to these essential ideas, and the breach of those ideas can be as informative as the ideas themselves.

Project methods

The doctoral research project will entail a review of scholarly and policy-related works in each tradition, including research of higher education practice and system organisation, supported by a small number of in-depth interviews with scholars in the English-speaking and Sinic worlds.

The key question for the study is to identify and explore the similarities and differences between the two traditions (including the potentials for synergy), conceptually and as practised in contemporary higher education.

The project will examine similarities and differences in relation to:

  • systemic policy and objectives,
  • university-government relations,
  • institutional and academic governance,
  • the conduct of teaching and research within universities,
  • the nature of collegial relations in the various disciplines, and
  • the ethical requirements of scholarly conduct.